The philosophy of editing

Rethinking your approach to podcast production could save you time - and headaches

At some point in your podcasting journey, you’re going to have to answer a crucial question: “How much editing should I be doing on my podcast?”.

The problem is that ‘editing’ can mean so much, from the simple act of sticking some standing intro music onto an hour’s rambling chat, all the way to crafting complex podcasts where you’re polishing every syllable and patchworking together dozens of sources into a layered but coherent narrative. 

Importantly, the approach that someone might take on one show isn’t necessarily going to be appropriate on another. Applying the slick, complex and tightly-edited approach used on a serious documentary show, for example, might murder the freshness and charm of a conversational podcast between a bunch of friends compared to a very basic, light production. We can’t tell you how much editing you should be doing to your podcast – it’s your podcast – but if you’re a few episodes in and realise the editing is more of a soul-sapping chore than you expected, you might find that thinking about it in a different way can reduce the burden.

Aspects of editing

First, there are lots of different kinds of editing, and if you’re fortunate enough to work in a well-resourced organisation which values audio, you might be working as part of a team with specialisms in all of these that you can lean on, but it’s quite likely that one person will do all of these tasks, and how much time each will demand varies based on the kind of show you’re producing and how you record.

Broadly, we can think about five types of editing, roughly presented in order of how much time they take – though there is nuance depending on factors such as the type of show and how much you value each one.

  1. Cleaning up the source recordings
  2. Cutting out content not for publication
  3. Assembling elements (including standing assets)
  4. Tidying up time delays and cross-talk from remote recordings
  5. Improving speech flow 

Let’s look at them in turn in a bit more detail.

Cleaning up the source recordings

Even if you’re fortunate enough to have recorded in perfect acoustic settings with high quality mics, it’s likely your source audio could do with some EQ work to ensure voices are clean and easy to listen to, such as cutting out some muddiness in deep voices, or softening the harshness of a piercing voice.

If one of your guests recorded in poor conditions, however, such as if they were recording on a laptop’s built-in mic in their kitchen, you probably want to get that voice a bit more in line with the other voices on the show, so you’ll be looking at effects and plug-ins to – for example – clear out noise and reverb. You can spend time manually polishing out things like plosives or clipping, but judicious use of automated features and track-level effects can speed this up if you’re less of a perfectionist.

But while it’s often a good idea to clean up your audio, there may be times when it’s nor appropriate. You might be chosing mics specifically to capture the sonic landscape and ambiance of a location, so trying to clean it out is counterproductive, and while in most cases you probably don’t want to go so far as to degrade studio quality speech to sound like it’s delivered over a telephone, including audio from a phone line – from someone right there where something is happening, say – is valid, and doesn’t need to be ‘corrected’.

Cutting out content not for publication

You’re probably going to have to trim away off-mic chat like “Right, is everyone ready?”, and if you’re pretty disciplined as a group, this might just be a few seconds at the start and end. If you’re a bit less polished, though, or find yourself starting and stopping, this may take up more time. Incidentally, dropping markers or noting timestamps can help you cut this stuff out more quickly.

Even here, though, there is nuance. Off-mic chat can be great for bloopers on social media, or if the vibe of the show is silly and irreverent, you might even include clips to good-naturedly embarrass one of the hosts on a future episode, or stitch them together for a special occasion.

Assembling elements

Smart use of templates and markers should mean that putting the clips together with music stings and other standing assets shouldn’t take long for simple shows, but for more complex formats, it will take more time to get the trimmed and cleaned audio into the right place around standing elements..

In this case, spending time up-front can really save time later, and this is where good technical knowledge of your DAW really helps. If you find yourself always cutting the mid-range in Dave’s voice, setting up your template with that effect already applied to the track you’re putting Dave on, and using things like grouping of clips, solid naming conventions and colour-coding to get everything quickly into place can give you more time to focus on other areas of the edit without sacrificing quality.

Tidying up time delays and cross-talk from remote recordings

Remote recording is enormously convenient, but the nature of video calls can result in a lot of dead air during a conversation. This can be hugely time-consuming if you’re stripping silences not just to clean up off-mic noises but to make it easier to shuffle individual clips around. On the other hand, it can take the Zoom-like awkwardness and stumbling out of online conversations hampered by latency, and if you all use similar mics in similar acoustic environments, your listeners never need to know you weren’t all around the same table.

This is time you may not think is worth spending, and Indeed, if your show is a bit more ‘tomorrow’s chip paper’ rather than ‘eternal truth that will outlast the sun’, it may not be necessary to clean it up too much. After all, we‘re increasingly familiar with the oddly stilted feeling of conversations that take place in this way.

Making speech flow better

This is probably what most people think of when they think of ‘editing’ – cutting ‘um’s, making someone sound more articulate by removing filler words or sentence mis-fires, perhaps even dropping in pick-ups if the producer clocked an error during or after a recording. This is fiddly work but audio is an amazingly forgiving medium, and it can be astonishingly rewarding to transform a nervous or inarticulate speaker into someone smooth and slick, or magic away stuff that makes your podcast sound amateurish.

While much of the editing we describe here doesn't really require you to do anything as mundane as actually listening to your podcast while you edit it, this kind of polishing does require you to pay attention and listen to all of the content to see what needs cut. 

You can make this faster by editing at 1.5× or even 2× speed, and the good news is that as you gain experience, not only can you spot an ‘um’ waveform at a hundred paces, but you’ll also quickly get to spot whether they’re likely good candidates to be cut or whether their removal will spoil the sentence’s cadence.

Usually, the aim here isn’t to make someone sound like they’re reading from a script, but to help someone sound the best version of themselves they can reasonably be, and to avoid antagonising your listeners. Starting an answer with ‘so’ gets lots of people’s hackles up, for example, which is not the feeling you want to engender in your audience, but these are almost always facile to remove.

Deciding what editing is right for you

There is no one right answer about whether you should do all of these things, or to what extent you should do each. For example, the lack of any hard limits on episode length makes it tempting to minimise the amount of time you spend cutting out things like filler words or prevarication, but what you should be thinking about is your audience; what do they expect, what do they deserve?

Roman Mars makes the point that if you have 100,000 listeners, and you cut out a minute of fluff from your podcast, you’re not just saving one minute, you’re saving 100,000 minutes. You might apply this philosophy to putting the gruntwork into cutting the awkwardness and crosstalk from remote recordings too: sure, audiences can pick that stuff apart in real time as they listen, especially after a pandemic’s-worth of Zoom calls and listening to remotely-recorded podcasts, but why should they? Either every individual listener unpicks crosstalk and mentally edits out awkward false starts from the recording each time they listen, or you do it once, and everyone benefits.

But you can over-edit as easily as you can under-edit. Clumsy editing can make speech feel unnatural; it’s almost never a good idea, for example, to take out literally every ‘umm’, even if you have the time to, as some will be integral to the cadence of the sentence. Not every pause should be shortened, either; some are important for… impact.

And besides, it may be counterproductive to polish all the mess and sparkle out of your show, sanitising it to the point of tedium. To borrow a phrase from BAFTA-winning media luminary Grant Bremner, you want to embrace a feeling that’s ‘authentic but not amateur’ – keeping the soul and heart of your show intact while not letting rough edges get between you and your listeners.

If you agonise over the editing, it could also kill the joy you have for making a podcast in the first place; the longer you spend editing late into the night, the bigger the risk you'll burn yourself out. No matter how much time you spend tweaking levels and equalisers, you’ll probably never feel you’re editing enough, and you’ll likely look back at early episodes with horror. We're often our own harshest critics, however, and your standards are probably higher than anyone else’s, including your audience’s. With that in mind, embrace knowing that you can give yourself permission to half-ass stuff every now and again without ruining the end result or the listener's experience.

In addition, if there are aspects of editing you find particularly hard, you can outsource them to software platforms or other people until you skill up. Remember that if you use an app like Audition, for example, one person can be doing the cutting and assembly while another works on polishing up a copy of the audio, and you can relink the updated audio in the multitrack, even if the original is cut into a thousand pieces and rearranged.

Listen to podcasts in your niche and outside it, to big shows and small, and figure out what kind of editing your show needs and what your audience deserves. Every podcast needs to be edited, but not every podcast needs to be edited in the same way – or to the same standard.